M.I.A. on the A.T.: Evasion

The boot-shaped logging trail north of the A.T. where Largay's remains were found.
The boot-shaped logging trail north of the A.T. where Largay’s remains were found.

M.I.A. on the A.T.: Evasion
Does a rumored journal explain the mystery?

by Chris Busby and Hutch Brown

Last month, in the second installment of our investigation of the disappearance and death of Appalachian Trail hiker Geraldine “Gerry” Largay (“M.I.A. on the A.T.: Survival”), we noted that the discovery of Largay’s remains last October raised more questions about the case than it answered. Chief among those lingering mysteries are the following…

  • How did Largay, a meticulously prepared and notably slow hiker, end up so far off the A.T.?
  • How could the Warden Service conclude that she died of starvation, thirst and exposure to the elements in the middle of summer, among numerous streams, and with about two days’ worth of food in her backpack?
  • Why are wardens evading seemingly basic, innocuous questions, like whether Largay had a tent and which side trail was closest to the site where her remains were found?

And then there’s the ultimate question: How did the largest search-and-rescue operation ever undertaken in Maine fail to find her before she died?

Further research and an intriguing tip have led us to believe we may have some answers to those questions.

The first crucial clue was buried in the copious coverage Largay’s disappearance generated on the Brentwood Home Page, an online news source for the suburban city south of Nashville where the Largays lived for many years. In a “special report” published May 27, 2014, about 10 months after Largay vanished in the woods of Maine, reporter Jessica Pace wrote, “Wardens were told by Largay’s friend Jane Lee, who hiked part of the trail with Largay, that the missing hiker had a poor sense of direction.

“‘A couple of times they’d get off the trail, and [Largay] would get back on headed in the wrong direction,’ [Warden Patrick] Egan said.”

As we noted last month, Gerry’s husband, George Largay, made a similar comment when the case was featured on an episode of the reality TV show North Woods Law, remarking that Gerry had wandered onto side trails at least once or twice before during her journey, but had made her way back to the A.T. each time. It’s not clear, however, whether those mistakes happened when she was still hiking with Lee, who began the journey with Gerry in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in April 2013, but reportedly left the trail as they were entering the White Mountains of New Hampshire to deal with a family emergency, after which Gerry hiked alone.

Without Lee to point her in the correct direction, it seems quite possible that Largay, having mistakenly left the A.T., was unable to find her way back. Lee’s comment to the wardens implies that Largay wasn’t merely prone to drifting off course; rather, she was apt to lose all sense of direction, heading 180 degrees the wrong way.

Before she left, Lee reportedly urged her friend to reconsider hiking solo, but “Gerry was resolute; she was continuing on,” wrote Boston Globe reporter Kathryn Miles. “Lee asked her friend to be careful.”

Largay’s thorough planning and slow pace would not mitigate the fact she lacked an internal compass, thus helping to answer the first question.

The answer to the next two questions involves a tip we received last month from an anonymous caller. The caller claimed that Largay kept a diary (or trail journal) during her thru-hike, that wardens found this journal with her remains, and that it contained as many as 19 relevant entries, possibly corresponding to 19 days since she went missing on Monday, July 22.

It’s important to stress that we cannot confirm, at this point, whether such a journal exists. The Largay family, which has engaged the services of a public-relations firm to handle communication with the media, is not commenting on any aspects of the case at present. There’s no mention of a diary or journal in any news reports we’ve read, though the existence of such an item would not have been relevant to the search effort.

And, perhaps tellingly, the Warden Service will neither confirm nor deny its existence. As with questions regarding whether Largay had a tent, the wardens’ standard answer is that all personal items found with her body have been returned to the family.

Here’s what we can say. The Bollard is not the only news organization that has been told a journal was found with the remains. The rumor of its existence is becoming widespread, in part because the idea that she may have been alive for nearly three weeks after she vanished makes her loss especially tragic and frustrating, particularly for the hundreds of volunteers involved in the massive search effort.

If Largay did make journal entries for 19 days after she left the trail, then the wardens’ otherwise implausible explanation for her cause of death is plausible. Three weeks without a meal would explain the starvation factor, and the weakness the 66-year-old hiker would have experienced during that time could explain her inability to get water, even from a nearby stream. In addition to the chill of night, exacerbated by dampness and rain, the heat of midsummer days could have been a contributing factor for someone in her condition.

So there’s a potential answer to the second question. As for the third — why wardens are being so cagey about the very existence of items like a journal — there are two likely reasons.

The first is a legitimate concern about privacy. The public does not reasonably have a right to know the contents of Largay’s pockets or her backpack. If she did have a diary, its text should also be off limits to the public.

However, there is a key distinction to be made between items that are strictly personal and personal items whose existence would explain the circumstances of this case, which is a matter of legitimate public interest given the enormous amount of public resources and attention devoted to it for over two years.

The existence of a tent, or a journal with entries made well into the month of August, would indicate that Largay survived for many days — several weeks, even — without being found. If that’s true, it could reflect poorly on Largay, suggesting she lacked the skills necessary to navigate in the woods or signal to rescuers for help. To direct any measure of blame on the victim is distasteful in a situation like this, and it’s understandable that authorities would wish to bury details that could do just that.

But what about the authorities’ own responsibility for this tragedy? If Largay was alive, within a mile of the A.T., for as long as 19 days without being found, how did the searchers fail to find her?

It is certainly not excusable for the Warden Service to bury details of the case due to concern those facts will reveal their own negligence or incompetence. In addition to issues of accountability, there may be important lessons to be learned from this search that could prevent a future tragedy. If the wardens are withholding facts to protect their own jobs or reputations, that lack of transparency cannot continue.

We are still waiting for the Warden Service’s final report on this case, and it’s our understanding that its release is being delayed in part by the need to compile records of all the searches that took place over the course of the two years Largay was missing — who searched where, and when.

At the press conference held in mid-October, after the remains were found, the Warden Service provided a detailed map showing the paths taken by search teams in that general area, some aided by specially trained dogs. Wardens said teams came close to the site of the remains twice: in August of 2013 and again a year later.

If wardens failed to search that area within the first week of Largay’s July 22nd disappearance — as their map and comments suggest — that would be more than a tragic mistake. It would be a gross dereliction of duty.

The map we published last month shows that the site of the remains was a short distance from an old boot-shaped logging trail, also called a tote road. That tote road intersects with the A.T. twice in the section of trail Largay was believed to have traveled when she vanished. Though it’s overgrown compared to the Railroad Road — the tote road she would have crossed shortly before encountering the boot-shaped trail — it is significant and recognizable enough to warrant being marked on a map.

Wardens have thus far resisted even acknowledging that this boot-shaped tote road is the path closest to where Largay’s remains were found. But if they were aware of this old logging trail — and, again, it’s right there on a publicly available topographic map — why wasn’t it searched within a day or two of the Wednesday, July 24 report that she’d gone missing after traveling that section of the A.T.?

Did an entire week or more pass before authorities searched that boot-shaped tote road? The wardens’ comments thus far seem to indicate that was the case. If it was sometime in August before that area was searched, what could possibly account for the delay? The terrain in this area is not challenging; it would require no special skills to search there.

Our reporting since last July points to a very troubling possibility: That boot-shaped tote road north of the A.T. was not searched because it’s inside the borders of the Navy’s highly secretive and sensitive training facility, a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School in Redington Township.

Wardens were reluctant to even acknowledge the existence of the Navy facility , which closely borders the A.T. exactly where Largay vanished, when commenting on this case to the media in the summer of 2013. Did that reluctance extend to a hesitation to search there, as well?

We’ll explore this issue further in the next installment of our investigation, Resistance, but in the meantime, keep these facts in mind:

  • On Thursday, July 25, when wardens must have realized Largay’s disappearance was an extraordinary case (upwards of 98 percent of missing persons are found within 24 hours of being reported missing), 42 trainees arrived at the Redington SERE facility for a training session that lasted until Aug. 2.
  • According to Sheldon Prosser, the assistant officer in charge of the SERE School, that week’s training was not interrupted by any effort to search for Largay, whose remains were found inside their base. Wardens did not even contact the SERE School when she was reported missing, according to Prosser, who said he learned of the disappearance from a newspaper article.
  • During SERE training, the Navy goes to great (indeed, often ridiculous) lengths to create the impression that trainees are in hostile enemy territory. It is imperative that no one unassociated with the SERE School come within sight or earshot of the trainees, lest that impression be dispelled and the value of the training negated.

Did Largay, a former Air Force nurse, die on Navy property because wardens and Navy personnel failed to search there within the first week or two of her disappearance? Did a classified program designed to help soldiers survive captivity indirectly lead to the death of an American who wandered inside the base?

Stay tuned.